They may have been in power for eleven years and yield the party’s biggest parliamentary majority since Margret Thatcher’s days as leader, but the Conservative Party under Boris Johnson is far from indestructible. A delicate balance of factors is holding their support together, a balance under threat by several problems the party will need to confront sooner or later.
The Johnson Effect
Boris Johnson and his personal image – the bumbling, the metaphors, and the hair – are a large part of what got him elected. He’s a ‘Heineken politician’ with whom voters easily connect because he gives them distinct character traits to latch onto. Of course, this connection is not always positive and herein lies the danger for the Tories under Johnson.
During the pandemic, the government has delivered highly popular (and costly) policies: at one point over 5 million workers had their wages paid by the government. Whilst the PM seemed to enjoy coming to people’s rescue with these schemes, the heroism can’t be eternal. Soon, Johnson and Sunak will have to make deeply unpopular choices that might include raising taxes and slashing pensions, and it might be that voters are less forgiving of the blonde bombshell theatrics when the man behind it is delivering bad news.
A Cultural Backlash
Johnson and his ministers have clearly made a calculation that taking a particular stance on cultural issues will be electorally beneficial to them. Among many incidents, we have seen opposition to the dismantling of controversial statues and ministers criticising a group of Oxford students for voting to remove a painting of The Queen from their common room.
The so-called culture war seemed to backfire, however, when Priti Patel was fiercely criticised by England footballer Tyrone Mings for calling their decision to ‘take the knee’ against racism “gesture politics”. The England team represent a whole new type of patriotism that has the potential to unsettle the Conservative Party on multiple fronts: in hours, Mings and his teammates reframed the national conversation around taking the knee to becoming a mark of a true patriot.
Indeed, very few commentators and politicians chose to take the Home Secretary’s side in the spat, showing that if converted into a party-political force, this type of anger will put the Tories on shaky ground and risk showing themselves to be out of touch in a multicultural Britain.
South of England Realignment
We’re all familiar with Labour’s northern ‘Red Wall’, but since any grouping of seats held by a political party must now apparently be understood in metaphorical architectural terms, the Tories’ southern ‘Blue Wall’ concept has arisen. Language aside, there is credence to the idea that as Boris Johnson pivots his policy platform to become more interventionist to satisfy the economically left-wing ‘new Tories’, traditional Conservatives in the south of England might grow frustrated.
Some saw the Liberal Democrats winning Chesham and Amersham as an early indicator of middle-class folk abandoning the Conservatives as they feel their attention is squarely on retaining the North. Johnson is aware of this threat, stating last month that you can’t “make the poor parts of the country richer by making the rich parts poorer”.
Whether such a realignment occurs remains to be seen – if so, it will pose a monumental threat to the Conservatives’ core voter base and raise questions about whether the party needs rebranding.
‘One rule for them, another for us’, it’s an age-old political line that packs quite a punch – the accusation that a group of politicians aren’t truly public servants and prioritise profit for friends over political duty. The Conservatives seem to be increasingly mired in scandal, including the PM and Chancellor recently trying to avoid self-isolation, and Labour seem to have identified this as the weakness for Boris Johnson with which to turn people away from the ‘same old Tories’.
Voters are familiar with wealthy individuals dominating the top of politics – 20 prime ministers were educated at Eton after all – but when said politicians appear to openly apply different rules to themselves versus others, a backlash will come. A backlash capable of forcing a government U-turn in 157 minutes, no less.
The Pandemic Effect
Boris Johnson and his government currently exist in a state of political desperation: people are desperate for them to succeed so that we all might retain our freedoms henceforth. There will come a time, however, when the vaccine rollout will be but a distant memory and people will be left reflecting on the months we spent locked in our homes and the lives of hundreds of thousands of families shattered by the loss of loved ones and jobs – lost arguably due to a late initial lockdown.
A large portion of the country will strongly feel that only the ‘Boris spirit’ could have got us through it. Another set of voters will brutally conclude that ministers have blood on their hands because of their mishandling.
The public enquiry will help to answer such questions but in time for the next general election, the biggest problem for the Conservative Party will perhaps be convincing voters that they were on the right side of history.